Naming and Knowing

Elena discusses accuracy in music talk and why we need it.

by: Elena Corey

(From Elena’s Music Matters column originally published in the Bluegrass Breakdown.)

This month’s music column focuses on accuracy in music talk and why we need it. Confidence in being able to state the exact name of a thing can be a fine thing: it aids conversation immensely. For centuries people have pondered the almost mystical belief that if you can call something by name, you have gained power over it. Most everyone recognizes that we need a commonly shared language with which to talk about things, but we do n need to remember that our ‘naming’ a thing should be informed, lest we impoverish our language even further by calling all rectangles squares.

Let’s start with one small item about music—the bridge of a song. In the classic ‘aaba’ song form, the ‘b’ section is defined as ‘the bridge’—that has been true for at least a hundred years. The ‘b’ section ‘bridge’ links the second and fourth ‘a’ sections together. Fiddle tunes with ‘aabb’ sections do not have a bridge; neither to long ballads with only a verse form. Popular songs that use the form ‘abac’ do not have a bridge either. A few modern, almost free form songs employ the form ‘abc’; there is no bridge in such a form. Within the last decade, some folks in our traditional acoustic music world fell into sloppy talk, and unaware of their ignorance, began calling any different section of a song ‘the bridge.’ Even a verse-chorus alternating song form got included.

Now when someone says ?Let’s play the bridge for the break,? regardless of the song form in question, inaccuracy is perpetuated, plus other players have not received any useful message from such communication. We want to bear with such well-meaning folks for many reasons including their enthusiasm for playing, but our music gets dumbed down unnecessarily when we use terms imprecisely. It is not too much to ask that people who wish to use musical terms use them correctly. A bonus for our understanding occurs if the term ‘bridge’ is used accurately–then when we have occasion to refer to ‘the climb’ (another linking section, but one that changes the direction of the progression), then we can accurately identify that section too. Using the standard names of intervals, tempos, chord progression relationships and other such terms relating to the structure of music can be truly helpful to people wanting to insure they’re talking about the same phenomena. (Think how confusing it would be if we all used private and individually derived terms in discussions with each other.)

On the other side of the argument, however, there are such compelling bits of information as these: When we think about music, certain “posers” abound. Why, for instance, should we call a group of notes a “twelve-tone scale”, when their boundaries are called octaves (which comes, as we all know, from a Latin word designating “eight”)? Are we trying to impugn most people’s ability to count? No one wants to throw into question our basic faith in linearly equivalent numerals, either, when we use numbers to indicate intervals on our major scale. But we have a tacit understanding that the amount of sound-space between intervals three and four, (and again between seven and one) is only half the amount as between all the other integers.

People, also, often can’t wrap their minds around the fact that certain chords, with different names, actually contain the same tones. e.g. A major 6 chord is identical to its relative minor 7 chord. Inversions and voicings of the notes may differ, but the same notes are thrown into the mix. In a fiddle class I recently observed, I overheard classically trained violinists attempting to avoid feeling helpless without written music. Several of them expressed feelings of inferiority after comparing themselves to untrained fiddlers who played by ear. The fiddlers raced heedlessly into learning the tune. To compensate and feel a sense of mastery over some part of the music, the violinists threw around such phrases as ?tritone repetition? and dissonant resolution to each other. Knowing nods and beseeching looks bespoke the need of these violinists to feel competent.

Such a human urge to try to gain mastery over a topic by use of words reminds me of the classic tale of a wealthy king whose daughter cried a lot. He summoned physicians of his era, but none could stop her crying. Finally one canny forerunner to the field of psychiatry explained, somewhat condescendingly, to the distraught father that the daughter could not stop crying because she had lachrymose tendencies. The father, of course, didn’t want to show his ignorance, so he shut up. The fast-talking court-consultant couldn’t stop the girl’s crying either, but he offered tautological words to the father in the hope that they would provide some sort of handle that would allow him to feel he might eventually understand the problem. We may all do this. Our simplistic, and equally tautological response to the question, ?Why do things fall to the ground when they’re dropped?? that quickly runs to speak of gravity, gives us a fine word to savor, but doesn’t further our understanding. Or similarly, trying to explain why plants turn themselves to face the sunshine by naming the phenomenon ?heliotropic properties offers scant information. We know that we don’t have to understand something before we can use it — after all we’ve been using electricity since we were knee-high to electrical outlets, and probably still don’t comprehend it. I do believe, however, that our strong desire for something tangible to use as a handle (to begin to understand a topic) and our penchant for naming things (instead of absorbing their essence) combine together too often, bogging us down in pedantic memorization of terms and their definitions. This is a poor substitute for a glimmer of understanding of the topic. We can understand how it sometimes happens regarding music; in music appreciation or music theory courses, students and teachers aim to become familiar with a body of music, and they hope to actually appreciate the music, making it available for the students’ future relaxation and comfort.

Of course we need to use a common language to discuss this wonderful music, but too often the semester ends just about the time the students have passed a comprehensive final demonstrating their memorization of definitions of all the terms considered salient to the topic. But the course also ends before any measurable acquaintance with the music those terms refer to can be developed and before any budding affection for the music can reach full blossom. Students do not gain the ‘take away’ value of emotional connection to the music by only mastering definitions of its terms. We have glimpsed the top surface of both sides of this issue and both seem to have valid points. It is true that we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking we really understand a thing by means of our definitions and descriptions. But in music, somewhat like swimming, we can move ahead faster (and enjoy it a whole lot more) if we quit fighting to stay on top of the water and just relax into it. So let’s immerse ourselves in the music while we refer to things about it accurately.